The Forgotten Legacy of John Mullen

JWMWhen the Braves fired Frank Wren as general manager three weeks ago, the past and present of the position sat at the table to make the announcement. With John Hart on one side and Bobby Cox on the other, team president John Schuerholz delivered the news this change of command would return the organization to the acclaimed “Braves Way” in an effort to return to the dynasty years of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. And why not? Despite a lacking in World Series trophies, that era will go down as one of the greatest spans for a single team in baseball history. Ask any Braves fan during or since who is to credit for the success and you’re likely to get one of two answers: Bobby Cox, who was the general manager from late 1985 until 1990, or John Schuerholz, who would follow Cox and take over the reins.

Cox and Schuerholz are the easy names to remember. They were the ones who made key acquisitions leading up to the 1991 season and continued the success by establishing an incredible scouting and farm development system. But the one name lost to the ages is the man who preceded the two men who are the cornerstone of the Braves current trio of Tribal Elders. Unfortunately, few current Braves fans will have any reaction when you casually work in the name John Mullen into conversation about the building of the dynasty era.

Mullen’s overall legacy with the Braves is a long one: dating back to the Boston days, spilling into the Milwaukee era, and rejoining the team in Atlanta after twelve years with the Astros. If Mullen is remembered, it’s likely for the work he did during those early years with the Braves, playing an instrumental part in the initial signings of Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, and Del Crandall, or for the infamous 1983 trade for Len Barker.

But the current legacy of John Mullen lies somewhere between those two. He didn’t have a legendary run in Atlanta, but it was far from a complete disaster. There were questionable moves, which weren’t always his fault, but the true legacy would be the groundwork he laid for what was to come.

When Mullen took over the Braves in May 1979 following the death of then-General Manager Bill Lucas, he inherited a team that was already ten games under .500 and would go onto lose 94 games on the season. But there was plenty of youth and potential. Bruce Benedict, Dale Murphy, Glenn Hubbard, and Bob Horner were all 23 or younger, while veteran Gary Matthews patrolled the outfield. There wasn’t much as far as pitching depth with the big club, but veterans Phil Niekro and Gene Garber were present to anchor the rotation and bullpen.

There was work to be done. But this was a different time. Free agency was still in its infancy, and we were still a couple years away from the battles between the owners and players regarding compensation. Player development was just starting to turn the corner and experiencing the boom it would in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Talent acquisition wasn’t as easy as the current landscape. The rich were rich, the others not so much. The 1970s were dominated by a handful of teams, while others (including the Braves) toiled with mediocrity.

Heading into the 1980 season, the Braves had only won their division once in fourteen years in Atlanta, and only finished at or above .500 four times. Gone were many of the names that lead to what little success the team had had: Aaron, Rico Carty, Joe Torre, Clete Boyer, Ralph Garr, Pat Jarvis. Talent was available and on the way, it was just a matter of when it would all peak and come together, and what Mullen could do to enhance the base. On top of the core in Benedict, Murphy, Hubbard and Horner, the minors boasted Terry Harper, Rafael Ramirez, Albert Hall, Gerald Perry, Brook Jacoby, and 1979 draft picks Brad Komminsk and Brett Butler were expected to make waves.

On the pitching side Niekro was now over 40, and while Garber had hit a bump in his first full season in in Atlanta, he was about to hit his stride. Larry McWilliams had an impressive 1978 despite struggling in 1979, Rick Mahler got his feet wet in the bullpen during the previous summer, Rick Camp would miss most of the ’79 campaign with arm injuries and had essentially become an afterthought, and Steve Bedrosian was still likely a couple seasons away. Pitching was priority number one heading into the 1980’s.

And with that, the Mullen transition began.

Objective number one was to add pitching depth. Within his first season as general manager, Mullen would add veterans Doyle Alexander for the rotation and Al Hrabosky as bullpen depth. The real groundwork would come in the January and June amateur drafts. In the 1980 drafts, the Braves would add Craig McMurtry, Ken Dayley, and Jim Acker as first round picks.

One of the more crucial moves the Braves would make prior to 1980 was a trade for 1B Chris Chambliss. The former Yankees slugger was coming off an impressive run with the Yankees, but it’s the position change warranted by the acquisition that will forever be remembered. Catcher-turned-1B Dale Murphy was now moving to the outfield.

Murphy was beginning to come into his own offensively after the 1979 season. While he had combined for 44 homers in two full-time seasons with Atlanta, he was a player without a position. Originally a catcher, Murph would fail at that position at the ML level, and be an equal defensive liability at 1B as a starter. In 1980, he would head to CF, and the trajectory of the Atlanta Braves organization would be forever changed.

The 1980 Braves would make a fifteen game improvement over their previous season’s counterparts thanks to the additions made by Mullen, and the added experience of a young base. Even more important was the strides made to help shore up the organization’s farm system.

Following the 1980 season, Mullen would be slightly lacking in direction. Thankfully, the now-available depth afforded it. Mullen would add free agent Claudell Washington, who replaced Gary Matthews, whom Ted Turner how soured on. The Matthews trade would be one of the moves which would leave a bad taste in many fans mouth, as the return (Bob Walk) would be fruitless. This would only prove to be the beginning of the rocky relationship between Mullen, Turner and an emerging Atlanta fanbase.

The next year would be one filled with turmoil. The first instance being the obvious: labor strife and a players’ strike starting in mid-June would wipe out a third of the season. The second being a shake-up warranted by continued success. The Braves would languish in the strike-shortened season, finishing 25-29 in the first half and 25-27 in the second. Turner demanded accountability. On October 8, the move was made. Bobby Cox was dismissed as manager after four seasons and a 266-323 record.

Two weeks later, Turner would find his new leader: former Mets manager Joe Torre, who had been fired by New York just days before the Cox dismissal.

There wouldn’t be many changes to the roster between 1981 and 1982, but the first youth movement had begun. The pitching staff was completely revamped, with Niekro being the only starter all season over the age of thirty. Mahler, Walk, and Camp would a large chunk of the starts behind Niekro. However, a month into the season, two crucial moves to the rotation were made: the call-up of Ken Dayley in May, and a trade for Pascual Perez from the Pirates in June. Along with the emergence of Garber in the bullpen, one of the best young relievers in the game would also arrive for his first full season: Steve Bedrosian.

The 1982 campaign was a special one right out of the gate. The team would begin the season on an incredible 13-0 run, and would hardly look back after it ended. The Braves would be up nine games by the end of July, and despite stumbling in August and September, they would regain the NL West lead from the Dodgers during the last week of the season, and take their first division title since 1969.

Also of note were a couple draft picks made: right-hander Duane Ward and left-hander Zane Smith. Ward would be the player eventually sent to Toronto to re-acquire Doyle Alexander, who we now know as the man who would be dealt for John Smoltz in 1987. While Smith would have four good seasons with the Braves from 1985 to 1989, he will be forever remembered as the left-hander the Braves would trade in 1989 instead of fellow lefty Tom Glavine.

Expectations were very high entering the 1983 season. For once, Atlanta had a winner and a very strong team in place. And thanks to a string of player development successes, the train didn’t appear to be slowing down.

Mullen’s only significant acquisition before the season would be reliever Terry Forster, who had flamed out since making a splash with the White Sox in the mid-70s, and lefty swingman Pete Falcone. Forster and Falcone would join an excellent group of Bedrosian, Garber, Camp, and Donnie Moore, who had come over prior to 1982. Offensively, it was more of the same. The only key difference was Brett Butler would emerge as the player the Braves hoped he would be when he was named the starting CF prior to 1982, before flaming out after a month in the Majors.

Once again, the Braves would come out hot. The National League West would bounce back and forth between the Braves and Dodgers for much of the season. By August 13, the Braves had held at least a five game lead for the past two weeks. It was the beginning of the end. Two days later, Bob Horner would break his wrist and miss the rest of the season. Over the next twelve games, the Braves would go 4-8 and fall out of first place for good. That same day, the team would agree to send three players to be named later to Cleveland for starter Len Barker. It’s a move that would define John Mullen’s front office legacy.

The move would be controversial from the start. While the players’ names were not to be released until the deal was completed after the season, it was widely rumored to be Brett Butler, 3B prospect Brook Jacoby, and pitcher Rick Behenna. Butler had become a fan favorite over the past two seasons. But rumors persisted the team had soured on him, already preferring to go with one of Albert Hall, Brad Komminsk, or Gerald Perry in LF for the 1984 season. Things would come to a head in late September when, as the team faded away, Butler would confront Ted Turner about the rumors. Turner would confirm the truth to Butler, and get hit with a substantial fine from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for violating rules barring PTBNL from being informed of impending trades.

The whole ordeal would be a sour note for Braves fans for years to come. And there was more to come. On October 7th, the team officially parted ways with 44 year-old Phil Niekro. The move would be regretted almost immediately, but it’s hard to say the move wasn’t a justifiable one with Barker, Mahler, Perez, Dayley, McMurtry, and Camp primed for 1984.

The 1983 season should probably be remembered for something else, however. With the 100th pick and the 677th picks in the 1983 June draft the Braves would select two very familiar names: a high school infielder from Texas named Ronnie Gant, and a high school infielder from New York named Mark Lemke.

Offensively, the team would remain unchanged aside from Butler. But that wouldn’t remain the case for very long. A broken wrist would again end Horner’s season, this time much earlier than late August. Same wrist, different spot. Following Horner’s last game on May 30, the Braves would bounce back and go on their longest win streak of the season, reclaiming first place by June 7. The run would ultimately be short lived. The rest of the way the Braves would struggle to a 46-59 record, finishing well behind the San Diego Padres, who had run away with the NL West title.

Two weeks after Horner went down, Mullen would use his starting pitching depth to his advantage, sending Dayley to St. Louis for the sure-handed Ken Oberkfell. He wouldn’t be able to replicate the power of Horner, but Oberkfell offered excellent defense and an ability to get on base. By locking up Oberkfell after the deal, the Braves would then be able to move Horner across the diamond, hopefully lessening the chance of injury for the oft-hurt slugger.

During that short burst of success in 1984, the course of the dynasty would again begin to further mold itself. With the 19th pick in the second round of the ’84 draft the Braves would select a two-sport athlete out of Massachusetts. Five days later, the Los Angeles Kings would make him a fourth round selection in the NHL amateur draft. It’s safe to say, Tom Glavine made the right decision. With their first pick in the secondary draft, the Braves would also select a shortstop named Jeff Blauser.

One thing that should also be noted about 1984 was a move at the trade deadline that wasn’t. Still looking to fill the power void left by Horner, the Braves contacted Boston about outfielder Jim Rice. The asking price was Bedrosian and young outfielder Brad Komminsk. Mullen and the team balked, and the trade was abandoned.

Following two consecutive second place finishes, Ted Turner again began meddling. Two days after the season ended, Joe Torre was fired. Despite a 257-229 record in three years as Braves manager, Turner saw the team as stagnant. The team had peaked early under Torre, and that would likely be his ultimate undoing.

What was universally agreed upon by Torre, Turner, and everyone else involved was this was a team still capable of great things. Both owner and the dismissed manager stated in the press conference the 1985 Braves could be one that ultimately makes a run at it all. Eddie Haas would be the man charged with taking the team to the promised land. Haas was the unanimous pick of the front office three seasons earlier, before Turner got his hand-picked favorite in Torre. After three seasons managing the AAA affiliate in Richmond, Haas would now have his chance.

The 1985 Braves would very much resemble their predecessors, with two additions: premier closer Bruce Sutter and catcher Rick Cerone. The signing of Sutter would replace Donnie Moore, and also free up Steve Bedrosian for a move to the starting rotation, which had long been rumored. The trade for Cerone was meant to add some offensive punch behind the plate, despite the former Yankee not exactly lighting the world on fire since a fourteen homer season in 1980.

Cerone and Benedict were to split time behind the plate, Horner would move to first, Oberkfell would have a full season at third, as would Terry Harper in left. Returning to their usual spots would be the middle infield of Hubbard and Ramirez, and Murphy and Washington in the outfield. The rotation was set: Mahler, Bedrosian, Barker, Perez. And with the addition of Sutter, few questions lingered about the bullpen, which also returned Garber, Camp, and Forster.

And the 1985 Braves? Horrible. Where did it all go wrong?

The majority of the blame would fall on Haas. To the point he wouldn’t even survive August, actually. At that point, the Braves were 50-71, scraping the bottom of the National League standings. Unanimous opinion well before the mid-season firing would be Haas was greatly over-matched, unable to inspire any type of drive from his players. As the team fell away from him, Haas refused to call clubhouse meetings, or to do any of those stereotypical fire-inducing tirades losing managers are wont to do. He came in, shuffled the lineup almost daily, and sat and watched a good team become unbearable.

There were problems on the field, as well. Perez and Barker would be atrocious, going a combined 3-22 in forty starts. Sutter didn’t live up to the money the Braves had paid for him. The combination of Cerone and Benedict would be horrible offensively. Oberkfell underperformed, and then was openly disappointed by lack of playing time. In fact, Murphy, Horner, and Washington would be the only offensive bright spots. The 1985 team was as bad as they were supposed to be good.

Once more, a couple selections in the June draft would be all the organization would have to write home about. With the 14th pick the team would select right-hander Tommy Greene, and with the 94th pick a left-handed from Kentucky – David Justice.

With little in terms of moving pieces from year to year, Turner’s guy not living up to expectations, the front office’s guy leading the team to an even worse outcome, accountability had to start moving up the chain. On October 11, when the team was announcing Chuck Tanner as the team’s new manager, Mullen would state “Ted’s gotta shake things up after a season like that.” And Ted being Ted, he would do just that.

Starting early in the 1985 season, Braves fans began calling for Mullen’s head. Just before the end of October, they would get their wish. They would also get the return of a very familiar face. Mullen was out. Bobby Cox was in.

***

Smoltz_OlsonThe Mullen legacy is a very complicated one. He is far from deserving of the praise often bestowed upon Cox and Schuerholz as Braves general manager, and a lot of his more questionable moves can be explained away by pressures from both Torre and Turner. But he led a team on the cusp of greatness to a series of very impressive seasons, while managing to put the cornerstones in place for what was to come.

Unfortunately, John Mullen wouldn’t be able to see his team achieve greatness. While he would remain with the team in various front office positions after Cox took over, he would pass away just before the 1991 season began. He would miss the chance to see the players he drafted – Tom Glavine, Ron Gant, David Justice, Mark Lemke, Jeff Blauser – reach their maximum potential and play such an integral part in one of baseball’s greatest dynasties.

It would be fitting that in one of the most iconic pictures in baseball history, the shot of John Smoltz and Greg Olson embraced in a bearhug on the mound at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, featured prominently on the future Hall of Famer’s left arm are the initials JWM, the team’s tribute in 1991 to one of the most important men to the Braves organization in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.

Brandon (@_bg37) is that dude K hates because of his love affair with Little Caesars. As a result of this, the two have been entangled in a years long debate over the sabermetric value of $5 pizza. Brandon‘s path to the Store has been a twisted one, involving studies in statistics and sports marketing and having been a member of the Braves online community since most were wee lads. He’s back in the writing game despite spending his free time chasing around a toddler and telling people not to buy hamsters.

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